Tufts heads to Amherst for NESCAC Championship weekend

Sophomore Katie Martensen attempts a shot in the game against Trinity on Feb. 4, 2016. (Sitong Zhang / The Tufts Daily)

After downing Williams 58-40 in the opening round of the NESCAC tournament last weekend, second-seeded Tufts (24-1 overall, 9-1 NESCAC) will take on third-seeded Bowdoin (21-3 overall, 8-2 NESCAC) at Amherst in the semifinals Saturday. The nationally-ranked No. 3 Jumbos hope to have a repeat of their Jan. 6 match-up against the No. 17 Polar Bears, which the Jumbos won at home 46-43.

Tufts is currently riding a streak of three straight comfortable wins after a tough 36-35 loss to Amherst on Feb. 4. The game was a battle for the top seed in the conference and hosting rights for the NESCAC championship weekend. Just eight days prior to Saturday’s win against Williams, the Jumbos also handily beat the Ephs 61-27 and then steamrolled Rhode Island College 74-27 a few days later.

“It feels really good to seal the deal and take it to the next weekend, especially since we just played Williams a couple of weeks before that,” first-year guard/forward Erica DeCandido said. “It’s kind of a spring board to what we hope [are] more games this weekend, but we just have to take it one game at a time.

This Saturday’s opponent Bowdoin comes into the semifinals in fine form, winning its last nine games in a row. However, like Tufts, Bowdoin’s last defeat came at the hands of the No. 1 seed Amherst (25-0). In the Polar Bears’ last match, they improved on their 68-49 regular season-ending victory over the Conn. College Camels, recording a 72-47 win last Saturday. Bowdoin shot 28-of-67 (41.8 percent) from the field in the most recent win and scored 34 of its points off turnovers.

Tufts and Bowdoin also lead the conference, averaging 12.0 steals per game each this season, so ball control could be a deciding factor. The last meeting between the two teams saw them turn the ball over 52 times combined, with Tufts giving up a season-high 22 turnovers.

DeCandido, however, thinks that this game will be different, especially given the experience the first-years have now.

“I think that one of the main things [about the previous victory over Bowdoin] was that [it] was our first NESCAC game,” DeCandido said. “I think I can speak for the [first-years] that it was a hard adjustment and we weren’t sure what to expect. But going into this game, we’re really determined and focused. We’ve been working hard all week for this, so we’d go into this one with the right attitude and just try to execute what we’ve been executing all this season.”

Reflecting on that first match-up, junior tri-captain guard Lauren Dillon thinks the team will have to improve on its offensive output to keep up with the NESCAC’s highest-scoring team, as the Polar Bears average 74.8 points per game. The Jumbos have already been steadily increasing their scoring over the course of the season.

“We worked a lot on our offense [since] that game,” Dillon said. “We need to score more than the 46 points we put up on the board that [first] game, and we’ve been practicing that the past couple of months.”

The Jumbos boast the second-stingiest scoring defense in the nation, giving up just 42.1 points per game, and they have been successful this season in keeping many of the high-powered offenses in the NESCAC from reaching their season averages. Last weekend, half of Bowdoin’s points were scored in the paint. But Tufts will also have an edge there with 6-foot junior forward Melissa Baptista and 6-foot-2 senior tri-captain center Michela North, two of the conference’s best defenders down low, holding a distinct height advantage over all of Bowdoin’s starters.

The Polar Bears are led by junior guard Kate Kerrigan with 9.0 points per game and sophomore guard Abigail Kelly with 8.3 points per game. However, one of their greatest offensive strengths is their depth in scoring, with eight of their 16 players averaging more than five points per game.

It should thus come as no surprise that Dillon believes the key to victory will be a strong defensive performance.

“The key will be to play our game – to play our defense,” Dillon said. “Bowdoin is a very good offensive team, and if we stick to our game plan, play the defense that we’ve been working on since day one, then I think that would be the biggest factor in the game. We need to do better from the field too: we need to hit more shots, but I would put more emphasis on the defensive end.”

Should Tufts prevail on Saturday, it will likely be looking at a rematch against No. 1-in-the-nation Amherst in Sunday’s championship game. The conference championship hosts face fifth-seeded Colby in the other semifinal game on Saturday.

The last three meetings between Tufts and Amherst were decided by a one-point margin. While the Jumbos are taking it one game at a time, Dillon believes that the team learned from its narrow 36-35 defeat a few weeks ago — the team’s only loss this season — and is ready for some payback, if it gets the chance.

“[We learned that] every possession matters,” Dillon said. “We had a lot of empty possessions, a lot of turnovers and when it comes down to that one point, you have to know that every possession counts … [We’re} more prepared to take care of the ball and treat the ball like it’s our baby.”